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About Chris Schluep

Chris Schluep spent more than a dozen years editing books in New York before moving west. He takes great pride in reading a wide range of books and connecting interested readers with the books they'll love. Chris lives in Seattle with his wife and son, and he feels like he may have one of the best jobs in the world.

Posts by Chris

Bill Gates Sells a Business Book

BusinessadventureWhat's the best business book Bill Gates has read? In a recent article, he named Business Adventures by John Brooks, sending it to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list. (It currently sits at #4.)

The billionaire/philanthropist heard about it from another great reader. "Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: 'It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,' he said. 'I’ll send you my copy.' I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks."

If you're interested in a 1960s collection of New Yorker articles, one that's beloved by two of the richest men in America, you should check it out. I know I'm going to. The only problem is you'll have to wait until September 9th to get the paperback edition--because it was out of print until Gates gave it his Seal of Approval.

 

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

MockingbirdFor fifty years, journalists have trekked to Monroeville, Alabama in search of Harper Lee. Normally, they leave town without even setting eyes on the famous but reclusive author. But in 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills wrote to Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, whom she eventually met. It was the beginning of a long conversation—which Ms. Mills recounts here in this exclusive essay:

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When the Chicago Tribune sent me south on an assignment in 2001 to write about Harper Lee’s hometown, I never imagined the adventure that awaited me. I certainly never imagined that I would meet the author herself. Lee had remained famously, ferociously, private since a few years after her first and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

We like to think we know which questions have the power to change our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you marry? Stay in your hometown? You can weigh those decisions, give them the thought they are due. Then everyday questions come along, and they turn out to carry that power, too. That’s the suspense of life, the serendipity. On that August day, my quick answer to my editor’s simple question, “Want to take a trip?” changed the course of my life and work for more than a decade.

After a nearly a week of talking to people around Monroeville, I knocked on the door of the house where the Lee sisters, Alice and Nelle Harper, lived, never expecting it to open. I had written Alice Lee, the then-89-year-old attorney who served as gatekeeper to her sister, known locally as Nelle, to tell her I would be in town and why.  

Alice opened not only the front door but the door to their lives as well. Soon, to my even greater surprise, I met Nelle. She arranged to come for a conversation at the Best Western where I was staying. From that meeting, a friendship with both sisters began, as did a years-long conversation about their lives and work.

At first slowly, then with increased gusto, Nelle shaped my own work, and how I viewed their town and the South. To the sisters, it was critical that I first understand their region, that I see them in context. Early on Nelle told me “To understand Southerners, you need to understand their ties to their church and their property.” And so I was off on a different kind of assignment, the Lee sisters’ guide to the South. I attended churches of all kinds in their corner of the Bible Belt, interviewed their friends and family, and took long drives with them through the small towns and rural areas they knew growing up. 

Marja-Mills-Chris-Popio-(2)My newspaper story ran in 2002 and I was on to other topics, while staying in touch with the sisters. My struggles with lupus made daily reporting increasingly difficult, however, and eventually it became clear I would have to find another way to work. In the fall of 2004, with the sisters’ blessing, I began renting the house next door to theirs to work on what became my memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

The Lees were ready to share more of their stories. Share them they did, on long country drives, on leisurely afternoons at their home and, with Nelle, often over afternoon coffee at McDonald’s or Burger King. “I know what you can call your book,” Nelle told me over one such coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air. “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delaney Sisters but titles aren’t copyrightable.’” Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years was a bestselling book about two African American sisters reflecting on their lives.

The Lees fascinated me as sisters. Alice was the oldest of four siblings. Nelle was the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, as much mother to her as sister.  Neither married or had children but in other ways they took very different paths.  Alice lived most of her life in their small hometown.  Nelle moved to New York as a young woman and stayed, eventually dividing her time between Manhattan and Monroeville. Alice was petite. Nelle wasn't. Alice wore only skirts, even on the week-ends. (Nelle referred to her as “Atticus in a Skirt.”) Nelle made casual pants and shirts her daily uniform. Alice worked at her law office until she was 100 years old. After the success of her novel, Nelle never held a traditional job. The never-ending press of interest in Nelle and the novel, however, was work in itself.  

The Lees didn't make big concessions to modern technology and conveniences, either. If a routine worked, they stuck with it. Nelle and I did laundry together at a Laundromat the next town over. The sisters faxed because Alice's hearing made using the phone impossible. But computers were not in the picture. Nelle used a manual typewriter to answer some of the correspondence that still poured into their post office box.

For all the sisters told me about their lives, I learned as much simply from seeing how they lived them: with a passion for books and history, church and community, friendship and family, and very little interest in material things. Television they had little time for, except when it came to football and golf. Their modest red brick house in Monroeville overflowed with books, but when it came to things such as wardrobes and furniture, they found simple things that worked for them and stuck with the same for decades.   

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes, and it was illuminating to see how they went about their day to day life in Monroeville. Both Nelle and Alice spent their time on books and friends, and, when it came to money, you would never know Nelle’s novel had brought her wealth. They did donate, quietly and generously, to church and education funds and various charities.

I am so much richer for my time with them. Spending time with these fascinating, intelligent, witty women was a lesson in living life on your own terms. They valued words far more than wealth--and their daily lives reflected that.

I’m reminded of a story Alice told me. When Nelle was studying in England in the 1940s, one of the Oxford boys she knew was going to London because he had a letter of introduction to a member of Parliament. “Something had happened that his girl couldn’t go,” Alice said, “and he asked Nelle Harper if she’d like to go. And she went. I think maybe they bicycled all the way in but, you know, it’s not far. And they were having tea on the terrace and this man who was hosting them excused himself from the table for a short time and returned with somebody.” Alice paused and looked at me with the relish of a cook about to serve a delicious dish. “And that somebody was Winston Churchill.” She continued, “Nelle Harper was so shocked and so overcome she couldn’t remember what she said. . . . Nelle Harper’s letter back home [to us] said, ‘Today I met history. I met history itself.’  

When I think of my time with the Lees in Monroeville, I feel the same way.

-- Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

(Photo credit: Chris Popio)

A Debut to Remember: Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You"

CelesteNgOne of my favorite books of the year is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it, but I'd heard good things about the novel, and it quickly drew me in. In the end, I tore right through it. As I say in this interview, there isn't a false note in the book.

I only hope that my praise for Celeste Ng's debut doesn't raise the bar so high that it can't meet readers' expectations.

Here's my interview with Celeste Ng:

 

A Conversation with James Browning, Author of "The Fracking King"

James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.

Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month

FrackingKingI had the pleasure of talking to author James Browning, who aside from being an author, is a spokesman and chief strategist for Common Cause, a government watchdog group:

Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?

James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.

CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?

JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.

This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person. 

CS:  How long did it take you to write the book?

JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.

CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?

JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.

CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.

JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.

CS: What's next for you?

JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.

I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.

Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.

 

WWII Hero Louis Zamperini Dead at 97

UnbrokenWhen Louis Zamperini's WWII bomber went down over the Pacific Ocean, he probably didn't think my story will become a huge best seller and be made into a movie. Survival was central to his mind as he sat in his little raft in the middle of the ocean. He had to survive intense sun, lack of food and water, leaping sharks, storms, and enemy aircraft. Eventually, he was taken in as a Japanese prisoner of war, where he was mistreated in ways that might have made his open sea experiences seem like a maudlin vacation. But through faith and resilience he survived to tell his tale.

Although his story is well-known to legions of readers, it is worth repeating (and reading and rereading).

Zamperini was born in 1917 to Italian immigrants in Olean, NY. His family moved to California in 1919, where he showed a proclivity for getting into trouble. To channel his energies, he took up boxing and eventually became a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he finished 8th—but he ran the last lap of the final so quickly that Adolph Hitler reportedly asked to meet him (they shook hands).

Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force in 1941, where he became a bombardier. In 1943, he and his crew were sent to search for a lost aircraft over the Pacific. Their B-24 (commonly known as the “lemon plane”) encountered mechanical difficulties and went down 850 miles west of Oahu. Only three of the eleven men aboard survived. One man, Francis McNamara, died after a month at sea. Zamperini and “Phil” Phillips survived on fish, two albatrosses, and captured rainwater. When they reached the Marshall Islands after forty seven days adrift, they were taken by the Japanese.

Their troubles were far from over.

The movie of his life is scheduled for December of this year. It is based on the inspiring and hugely successful best seller Unbroken.

He also wrote two memoirs: Devil at My Heals and Don't Give Up, Don't Give In (to be published in November).

An Interview with Karin Slaughter, Author of "Cop Town"

CoptownKarin Slaughter is one of the best crime writers around. Her novels are distinguished in part by a rare depth of character, a rare depth that is smart enough to step out of the way of the plot so that readers will keep turning the pages. Her latest is Cop Town—her first stand-alone novel—about a female cop trying to get by in 70s Atlanta. As a rookie cop, Kate Murphy has an uphill climb. But that's just the beginning of her difficulties, with news of a brutal murder and the shooting of a beloved fellow cop.

I caught up with Karin Slaughter at Book Expo America, where we sat down to talk about her book, her research, why she likes to write about Atlanta, and more.

She was an absolute pleasure.

 

An Interview with Lily King, Author of "Euphoria"

LilykingLily King's Euphoria is our Spotlight pick for the Best Books of June. This enchanting novel is based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and of it, Sara Nelson wrote: "This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration."

It's a book that can be read on several levels, and our entire team got behind it. Some admired Euphoria for its potent sense of love and adventure, while others were drawn in by the drama and the revealing examination of how people study other cultures. Booklist summed it up as "a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating," and I couldn't agree more.

I was happy to get a chance to talk to Lily at the Book Expo America this year:

 

 

An Interview with Biz Stone, Twitter Founder and Author

BizA while back I had the pleasure of talking to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and author of Things a Little Bird Told Me. Twitter's origin story begins with brainstorming sessions held at Odeo, a podcasting company in San Francisco, where Stone worked after working at a company called Blogger. In the interview below, Stone talks about why they held that brainstorming session, what it was like to get Twitter off the ground, and why you should probably buy your developer a phone if he doesn't have one.

Stone doesn't come from a technical background (at one point, he was a book jacket designer) and his childhood was far from privileged. What he did have was a sound work ethic and the ability to think outside norms—a quality that characterizes so many business successes. In Things a Little Bird Told Me, I found a compelling and inspiring character. The same goes for our conversation below.
Chris Schluep

 

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"Well, How Did I Get Here?" - A Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Author of "My Struggle"

MyStruggleI first heard about Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle like most other people who have heard about it: through the media. It was just before the U.S. publication of book one (there will eventually be six in the series), and I didn't get to reading it at the time. But it hovered at the edge of my awareness, and it would come up every once in a while. (I remember Colson Whitehead trying to describe it during a lunch, and I remember not really getting it.) Eventually I did pick up My Struggle, and I get it now.

But it's not an easy work to describe. My Struggle is about a man named Karl Ove Knausgaard—a writer, father, and husband, who, like the author, grew up with an alcoholic father. The book is notorious for following the banalities of its protagonist's life. It makes art out of the mundane, keeping a bright light on his feelings as he passes his days, and—maybe my favorite part—striking out at times into truthful exposition on life.

Did that help? I don't know. But it's a literary sensation, and it deserves it. Read on to get a better sense of the book and the author.

 

Chris Schluep: I have begun describing My Struggle as “A Portrait of the Artist as a Man.” How do you describe it?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: I think definitions are enemies of the novel, or at least the opposite of what they try to obtain, but My Struggle certainly is about a man who tries to make art out of life, or life out of art, so your description is accurate. For me, the novel basically is about identity. Its starting point
is the question "well, how did I get here?" A man, me, in the middle of his life, that radically changes: he is a son, but his father dies, and he's a father, which forces him into something new, for him, that is —for at the same time, there is a feeling in him that previous generation's roles and behaviours run through him like a flood. So the question is: what is it to be a person? How much of me is mine? The answer is sought in a long run of descriptions of everyday life, but never found or even pinned down, because, well, that would be the opposite of what a novel does.

Knausgaard_aj_photo2Schluep: The books are alternately described by others as novel and memoir, sometimes as both in the same piece. Where do you fall on that distinction? Were you actively looking to tear down these barriers?

Knausgaard: I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn't a documentary or a memoir either: it's a non fiction novel.

Schluep: How close is Karl Ove Knausgaard in the books to Karl Ove Knausgaard in real life? Were you generally conscious of separating the two, or did it not matter to you?

Knausgaard: The books reflects my inner self, this is how the world looks from the inside of me—which means that the feelings are as important as the observations, that everything that happens is soaked with feelings. It also means that there are no real barriers between a description of what I read and what I see or do. So it´s me. But if you meet me, you will have quite a different impression, I guess—because the bodily presence is so very different, always tuned in to the other, always restricted to the social rules, which the written self is not.

Schluep: What authorial advice did you give yourself as you sat down to write the first words of My Struggle?

Knausgaard: Just get over with it.

Schluep: When did you realize there would be six books and why did you make that decision?

Knausgaard: I had written twelve hundred pages or so when I handed it over to my editor. He wanted to publish it, and we discussed how we should do it. One volume? Two? Then he proposed twelve volumes, one each month for a year. That was such a brilliant idea. In the end, they didn't dare; it was too risky economically, so we ended up with six novels, three in the fall, three in the spring. I could part the existing manuscript in six, and the job would have been done, but I parted it in two, so that I had to write four more novels that year. So we published the first in September, and I promoted it while writing the third and editing the second,and when that was published, I wrote the fourth, and so on.

Schluep: Did the success of the first book change your approach to writing the ones that followed?

Knausgaard: Not the success, but the controversy definitively did. I never quite understood the rage that these books would be met by, I was naive and completely underestimated the power of the real-life subject. In book one and book two, I´m as honest and direct as I could be (it's impossible to be absolutely honest, which I understood after a few pages), but when all the attention came, which was insane, I became much more careful and kind. In book six, I wanted to take the ruthlessness back, to save the whole project, and that was extremely difficult, being deliberately immoral, and not just accidentaly immoral.

Schluep: You’ve described the writing of My Struggle as “literary suicide.” Could you explain what you meant by that?

Knausgaard: There should be nothing left when I finished. The author should be dead. To obtain that, I even blew all my ideas and plans for future novels. And I succedeed, the author of these books can never come back. So I have to invent a new one if I want to continue writing.

Schluep: How have you come to terms with your fame?

Knausgaard: I haven't, really. My basic approach is that of denial. In most interviews, I talk about how bad these books are, and what a lousy person I am. That's my defence. At the same time, I´m addicted to it, I google myself all the time. And isn't that a typical addiction behavior, a life of kicks and denials?

A Video Interview with Peter Heller, author of "The Painter"

The PainterPeter Heller caught our attention a couple of years ago with his debut The Dog Stars. Here's what we had to say about it at the time:

Adventure writer Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is a first novel set in Colorado after a superflu has culled most of humanity. A man named Hig lives in a former airport community—McMansions built along the edge of a runway—which he shares with his 1956 Cessna, his dog, and a slightly untrustworthy survivalist. Poetic, thoughtful, transformative, this novel is a rare combination of the literary and highly readable.

The book was met with wide acclaim and much success—so we eagerly anticipated his next novel. The Painter, about a 45-year-old artist and fly fisherman named Jim Stegner, did not disappoint. In fact, it's even better than The Dog Stars.

Having lost two wives to divorce and his only daughter to violence, The Painter's Jim Stegner has felt the sting of life; but he’s also capable of experiencing great beauty, whether through his art, his relationships, or while out casting on a river. He is a man who is capable of lashing out against the world—the first line in the novel is "I never imagined I would shoot a man."

I sat down to talk to Peter Heller about the inspiration for Stegner, and much more.

 

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